Undercurrents: Clichés and scientific archaeology in Egyptian foreign relations

cypriot_juglet
Pair of Cypriot ‘base ring juglets’ from the Petrie Museum (UC13419). Foreign pottery is found at various Egyptian sites, providing evidence of trade and exchange between ancient Egypt and its neighbours.

Scientific and archaeological papers presented at a recent conference on Egyptian foreign relations revealed that ancient Egyptian foreign relations were far more complex than elite and monumental and textual clichés express. Although I was aware that such clichés represent a very partial view of the ancient world, as the conference progressed I realised how far I had internalised and normalised the elite, ancient Egyptian worldview they presented. This experience raised questions as to how far we who study the ancient world absorb its mores, how we control for these in our research and investigate the social complexities obscured by them.

In September I was asked to present a paper on recent research in the Western Desert of Egypt at the University of Liverpool  Undercurrents conference  (sponsored by Marie Curie Actions), which looked at the relationships between ancient Egypt and the cultures on its periphery and across the ancient world.

The papers at the Undercurrents conference covered a wide range of cultures, sites and disciplines from satellite imagery, to Tutankhamun’s gold appliques, to the iconography of the gods of Pi-Ramesse. Every paper contributed to the overall theme, looking at the complex interaction between the Nile Valley and its neighbours, near and far. Pottery, like the Cypriot base-ring juglets (above left), played a significant role in several papers, but scientific analyses of various different types was also a key theme.

A recent increase in scientific analyses of data from multiple sources (e.g. Zakrzewski et al. 2015) is currently providing new insights into ancient Egyptian culture and society and this is likely to continue and increase. The studies presented in Liverpool are a part of this trend and demonstrate the value of scientific and archaeological studies for understanding the great variety of ancient Egyptian interactions with their neighbours and revealing the contrast between the genuinely complex and flexible web of ancient cultural interactions and the limited and clichéd impression of these relationships that we get from Egyptian sources.

We are familiar with the stereotypical ways Egyptian iconography portrayed foreigners from a variety of races. For each group the Egyptian artist emphasises specific distinguishing characteristics, including skin colour, dress, facial features, hairstyle and beard types, that identifies them as both ‘un-Egyptian’ and with a specific tribe or area.

abusimbel_boundnubian
A line of bound Nubian captives at the foot of the colossal statues of Ramses II at Abu Simbel.

These stereotypes appear in stock scenes as dangerous enemies being vanquished or as bringers of tribute. The depiction of the foreigner as the chaotic ‘other’, requiring subjugation for the political and ritual protection of Egypt is most evident in the ubiquitous ‘smiting scenes’ (Köhler, 2002; below) which date back at least as far as Narmer palette and the Early Dynastic Period (c. 3200 – 2686 BC). The same religious and political message is conveyed by New Kingdom imagery of Pharaohs, in their chariots, triumphantly leading their armies to victory over the bodies of slain foreigners.

karnak_defeated_enemies_thutmose3
The ancient Egyptians’ presentation of their ‘foreign relations’. A ‘smiting scene’ of Thutmoses III from the outer wall of Karnak temple showing the execution of captured foreign prisoners.

There is certainly some truth in these scenes. The New Kingdom Pharaohs fought battles with various foreign groups, taking prisoners and booty. How common real ‘smitings’ of captured enemies were is debatable, but there’s no doubt as to the impression that is intended by images of ubiquitous Egyptian victory. Foreigners are dangerous, threatening and must be vanquished. Only in their defeated state can they be permitted a presence on Egyptian monuments.

When they are not being brutally executed, foreigners are presented as grateful bringers of tribute in several Egyptian tomb scenes. The inspiration for these scenes may be diplomatic gift exchange, such as that described in the Amarna letters, which record diplomatic correspondence between Egypt and its neighbours (Moran 1992).

Egyptologists have long observed that if we were to believe the Egyptian sources, we might imagine that interactions between Egypt and its neighbours were dominated by war and tribute, with relatively little room for trade. We have assumed that recognising the ritual clichés inherent in Egyptian elite self-presentation of foreign relations immunises us, enabling us to objectively dissect the ancient sources, seeking a more detailed  and nuanced understanding of the complexities of ancient Egyptian foreign relations. Indeed this concept, that the recognition of bias or partiality enables us to manage it in our research, is a crucial element in all historical research and textual analysis.

But when faced with the scientific analysis presented at the Undercurrents conference I realised that I had absorbed and internalised much more of the ancient Egyptians’ self-presentation than I thought. Although I had always assumed that the clichés of dominion and tribute were merely the politically, socially and ritually appropriate face of a much more complex system of trade and exchange, my surprise at the reality of ancient trade relations revealed to me how far I had internalised the elite Egyptian worldview. As paper after paper revealed Egyptian society enmeshed in webs of trade relations and international fashion, that involved exchanging divinities and actively working with groups that are elsewhere presented as a threat to be conquered, I realised that I hadn’t been sufficiently skeptical. Skeptical of the endless lines of captive foreigners bringing tribute or awaiting illustrative (in both senses of the word) execution, of Egyptian claims to hostile encirclement by chaotic enemies, the endless battle reliefs and the ritualised fear of the non-Egyptian world. While paying lip-service to the idea that the reality was more complicated that the texts, my repeated exposure to and interest in ancient Egyptian written sources, iconography and imagery meant that, like an ancient scribal student copying texts, I had thoroughly absorbed and internalised the elite Egyptian worldview presented in those sources. A hefty dose of scientific and archaeological analysis was required to reveal the reality of this to me.

This raised many further questions for me. How do I respond to this in my future research, avoiding interpreting my data in terms of ancient cliché, without ignoring useful cultural information from textual and monumental sources? Given how far I had internalised an ancient Egyptian worldview, even while assuming it was only a partial impression of reality, then what else might I be missing?  How else has my 21st-century-mind become attuned to the imperatives of an ancient Egyptian scribe?  And if this affects me, then how does it affect my fellow archaeologists, classicists and historians who also work with complex, literate societies?

I cannot answer all these questions, indeed I wonder if anyone can, but I can attempt to answer the first one. If we can’t help but internalise the norms of the societies we study then it is even more important that we investigate those norms from multiple textual, archaeological and scientific perspectives, that we consider the evidence of different classes, sexes and ethnicities, and that we are aware of the ancient clichés hidden in our minds. To do this we need the increase in scientific and archaeological investigations that are currently moving beyond the elite and monumental elements of the ancient world. But we also need to integrate the results of those scientific and archaeological studies into our understanding of monumentality, iconography and textual interpretation. A better understanding of ancient reality hides in the cracks between science, archaeology, epigraphy, text-criticism and iconography. To excavate those realities we need to be prepared to integrate multiple sources, comparing, contrasting and questioning their different perspectives to understand the complex reality that is revealed by archaeology and scientific studies, the simplistic and clichéd way that reality was presented in ancient monumental iconography and politicised texts, and how those presentations influenced or brought about changes in economic trade and political activities.

References

Köhler, C. E.  2002. History or ideology? New reflections on the Narmer palette and the nature of foreign relations in Pre- and Early Dynastic Egypt. In E. C. M. van den Brink,  and Thomas E. Levy (eds), Egypt and the Levant: interrelations from the 4th through the early 3rd millennium BCE, 499-513. London ; New York: Leicester University Press.

Moran, W. L. 1992. The Amarna Letters. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Zakrezewski, S. Shortland, A and Rowland, J. 2015. Science in the Study of Ancient Egypt. London and New York: Routledge.

Tutankhamun, Nefertiti and all that jazz: What have we learned?

striding-nefertiti
Striding statue of Nefertiti in older age, from Amarna. Now in the Neues Museum, Berlin (AM 21263).

It’s been almost a year since the media first noticed something afoot in the tomb of Tutankhamun. The saga is well known and has been much debated. (For anyone who’s been on fieldwork in Antarctica or the Pegasus Galaxy you can find a summary of events in this National Geographic article). It is interesting to consider what the past year can teach us about Egyptology in the media age and what lessons it has for the future.

Scientific method

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the story is that the entire saga represents a case of the scientific method directly applied to Egyptology and undertaken in the full glare of professional, public and media scrutiny. The application of scientific techniques is now common in both archaeology and Egyptology, but they mostly appear in the media after they have produced a helpful result; a carbon date for an undated site or object, the residue analysis that reveals what an ancient population ate, the DNA analysis of the family of Tutankhamun. While experts may discuss and even dispute results in learned journals, such debates rarely make it into the media and are usually associated with the minutiae of the research. The public never gets the opportunity to watch the scientific process played out in real time. Scientists and social-scientists quietly formulate hypotheses, construct experiments and undertake fieldwork or analysis to investigate those hypotheses, analyse the results and come to conclusions. Those conclusions are usually published, and occasionally make it to the media, but we are rarely presented with a case where experiment, fieldwork or investigation proved the hypothesis wrong. Until now!

Like any scientist Nicholas Reeves came up with a hypothesis (published in this article), that Tutankhamun’s tomb contained hidden chambers holding the Kingly burial of Nefertiti. This hypothesis was then tested, with a visual inspection in September 2015, followed by the first radar scans in November 2015, after which we were told that Mamdouh Eldamaty, Minster of Antiquities, was ‘90% certain’ there was something behind the wall of Tutankhamun’s burial chamber.

Some specialists in ground penetrating radar (GPR) were skeptical, some Egyptologists countered Reeves’ evidence for Nefertiti’s presence and there were general calls for the radar data to be made public for peer-review by other GPR specialists. Once the data was made public, the skepticism increased and the Ministry of Antiquities sought to repeat the experiment with a new set of radar scans undertaken by a different specialist. A key aspect of the scientific method is that results should be repeatable and comments made by the Ministry of Antiquities reveal that they clearly intended the new scans to be seen as part of a scientific approach to the research in Tutankhamun’s tomb.

We all know that the new radar scan contradicted the initial one. Various experts have examined the new scans and believe there are no voids behind the walls of Tutankhamun’s tombs. No voids, no chambers and no Nefertiti. It appears that after nine months of public and media scrutiny and debate, a very public demonstration of the scientific method has proven the null hypothesis.

The backlash

There has been considerable criticism of the events, their management, the media response and of Egyptologists ‘jumping on the bandwagon’, as one social media commentator put it. So what are we to learn from these events and how should we react in future?

Should Reeves have been denied permission to investigate in the tomb?  I think the answer to this has to be ‘No’. Reeves’s theory was within the bounds of the possible, and he had a range of evidence to support it. It’s possible to disagree with some or all of his evidence, but there are plenty of equally contested theories in Egyptology. At least Reeves’ hypothesis was testable. Since so few theories can be directly subject to this type of experimentation and testing, it’s important that when a testable theory comes along we do actually test it.

Given that the research was necessary, then should Reeves and the Ministry of Antiquities have undertaken the work in secret? Again, the answer must surely be ‘No’! For many pieces of research this is usually the approach taken, with a researcher quietly beavering away until he or she comes up with a useful conclusion that can then be made public. Such an approach is unlikely to have been effective in this case.  As if mysterious tombs, hidden chambers and the prospect of golden treasures weren’t enough to capture the imagination, the characters were the perfect combination;  the most famous tomb in Egyptology (Tutankhamun’s), one of the most famous women in Egyptology (Nefertiti), belonging to one of the most debated periods (Amarna), with a side order of gender roles (did Nefertiti reign as Pharaoh?), religion and incest. No media outlet could resist such a combination once they got a whiff of something going on. It’s also exactly the sort of subject that leaks rapidly on social media, causing confusion and conspiracy theories to abound. I have previously written about how rapidly conspiracy theories can develop. Only imagine how they would accrue around headlines like ‘Secret Investigations in the Tomb of Tutankhamun’. Secrecy would also make academic and peer scrutiny difficult to obtain and suspect to those ‘out of the loop’, and might even encourage the burying or fudging of inconvenient results. Transparency is surely the best thing in such cases, even if it risks embarrassment. In an age where people are skeptical of scientific research and ‘experts’, then science (like justice) must not only be done, it must be seen to be done.

So given that a testable hypothesis should be tested, and that this should take place in a transparent way when the circumstances dictate, can anything be done about the media hype? The media (and ultimately the public) are likely to remain deeply interested in hidden tombs, Tutankhamun, Nefertiti, the Amarna period, and the prospect of golden discoveries for the immediate future, if not forever. These are the things that have captured the public imagination. Of course there are plenty of people who have a much wider interest in Egyptology and archaeology. The number of Egyptology and archaeology societies, Facebook pages, amateur groups, forums and charities like the Egypt Exploration Society and the Friends of the Petrie Museum testify to a widespread and incredibly knowledgeable body of people with a broad interest in the subject. But the national media report for the whole country, not just professional Egyptologists or knowledgeable groups, and cater for the whole sweep of opinions from the celebrity-obsessed (who naturally take to ‘royal’ celebrities of an ancient age) to the ‘fringe’. It is almost inevitable that most Egyptology in the press and media will be limited to the usual themes; Tutankhamun, Nefertiti, Cleopatra, golden discoveries, tombs, temples and mummies.

So should we Egyptologists engage? Should we present our research in an exciting way so the public gets a chance to hear what we’re up to?  I think we need to engage to a certain extent. We need to talk up our research, if only because people need to understand why we do what we do and what’s important about it. But of course we shouldn’t misrepresent our work, or only study topics that are appealing to the media. In light of the results of Reeves’ theory and the media responses to them, I think it’s very important that we defend the scientific method, that we emphasise that not all research produces golden results and that we remind people that the process they have seen played out in public is a, perhaps flawed, but clear example of the scientific process in action. Behind every exciting discovery are months, years and decades of quiet research, much of which came to nothing. Sometimes you produce exciting results and sometimes there is nothing there, and knowing when there’s nothing there is also a valid and useful result. 

This strikes me as being particularly important in view of some of the reactions I saw on social media to the Tutankhamun saga. While many people were disappointed but philosophical, observing that archaeological theories often come to naught,  others appeared almost angry that the theory wasn’t proven, arguing that they’d been misled and objecting to Egyptologists who ‘went along with it’. While its certainly true that prompt publication and peer-review of the data from the first scan would have been preferable, and helped to avoid any suggestion of misdirection, this does not mean that Reeves or anyone else perpetrated a ‘scam’. There was confusion about what the data from the first scan actually showed and it was not published or peer-reviewed as soon as it should have been, but such mistakes can be made when the stakes are high, things are being undertaken in the public eye and there are various different scientific, government and academic parties involved. The mistake was rectified, the data from the first scan was published and a second set of scans commissioned, reaffirming the importance of the scientific method. The fact that this research was permitted in the first place, announced publicly, and ultimately followed proper scientific methods is a positive thing. 

More significantly, if people react angrily when a theory breaks down then there will be greater pressure to deny requests for permission to undertake such research, requirements for secrecy that will harm public perception of the probity of scientists, archaeologists and Egyptologists, and even the temptation to hide, obscure or fudge unfavourable results. Quite apart from the morality or otherwise of any of these reactions, there are enough people trying to persuade the public that we are all covering up one giant conspiracy or another – we don’t need to add fuel to the fire.

There is nothing wrong with undertaking research and hypothesis testing in the public eye, indeed I argue above that in this case it was necessary, but if people believe they will be abused or derided when they are wrong, theories will not be published, research will not be undertaken and we will all be the poorer. The same goes for those who respond to such theories, giving public commentary, interviews or presenting television programmes. Archaeologists absolutely need to be prepared to discuss theories publicly, to provide context in the face of hype, to express the full range of possibilities that may come out of any given research and to remind the public that the essence of science is the testing of hypotheses and the investigating of theories. Ignoring possible theories because they don’t accord with the orthodox view is a dangerous path that strangles scientific debate and cultural progress. We should all be working to avoid that scenario and we shouldn’t be ashamed that sometimes our research proves the null hypothesis, that only demonstrates the importance of the scientific method to us and to the world at large.

References

In addition to the links in the text, A. Dodson, 2009, Amarna Sunset, published by American University in Cairo Press, provides a good introduction to the general period of Tutankhamun and Nefertiti and to the many debates surrounding it.

The sequel, A. Dodson, 2014. Amarna Sunrise, also by American University in Cairo Press, gives additional background and incorporates some of the newest evidence, including recent DNA tests of the relevant mummies. In addition to giving the author’s take on the Amarna period, both books provide an introduction and references to some of the latest debates concerning this period of Egyptian history.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review of the British Museum’s Sunken Cities Exhibition

This post reviews the British Museum’s new Sunken Cities exhibition, which I recently visited. Photography is forbidden in the exhibition, so I haven’t been able to include any pictures from it here, but you can get a taste of the experience on the British Museum website.  Most professional reviewers seemed to enjoy it, but some suggested it would benefit from more lighting and less ambient music. The Guardian newspaper positively disliked it, complaining that it ‘patronises with Indiana Jones-style nonsense’ to compensate for dull objects.

I’m happy to say  that I found the Guardian’s reviewer completely missed the point. The exhibition contains an interesting mix of material recently excavated from the ‘Sunken Cities’ of Thonis-Heracleon and Canopus, contextualised with objects from other sites, periods and countries. Brief videos of the retrieval of the artefacts reveal the reality of underwater excavation, and the necessary scientific care that elevates excavation above ‘treasure hunting’ for ‘pretty things’, giving even the humblest artefact the opportunity to shine.  The low lighting, blue colour and music do manage to evoke an undersea feel, even an intimacy, but they are not strictly necessary as the objects are good enough to stand on their own merit. Far from a ‘weird pastiche’, the quality of the statuary shows that even in this late period Egyptian stone carving could be second to none, while the hybridisation of Greek and Egyptian styles produced some breathtaking work. The lighting felt a little low, but the objects were well lit, and the music was so inoffensive and bland I rapidly tuned it out.

The exhibition details the discovery and underwater excavation of the twin cities of Thonis-Heracleon and Canopus, which lie submerged beneath Aboukir Bay on the north-western edge of the Nile delta, 30km east of Alexandria. The details of their discovery are briefly covered in the exhibition, but there are more details in the catalogue and in this New Statesman article (Thanks to Jan Piction of Petrie Museum Unofficial Page for the link). In a largely successful attempt to provide more information about the discovery, underwater excavation and lifting processes, there are regular videos throughout the exhibition showing the excavation of principal artefacts. These videos provide a welcome reminder that these are carefully excavated objects, whose provenance provides much of the scientific information that makes them so interesting.

The cities of Thonis-Heracleon and Canopus had their heyday in the Late period (664-332 BC) and Ptolemaic period (332-30 BC). Although Ptolemaic art is sometimes derided as a ‘pastiche’, the artefacts in this exhibition demonstrate that at its best it can be breathtakingly beautiful. The truly stunning statue of Arsinoe II is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen and perfectly demonstrates the heights that could be reached when Egyptian and Greek artistry were combined. A similar, later statue known as ‘The Black Queen’, that probably shows Cleopatra III as Isis, demonstrates that even when less inspired, Ptolemaic carving was of a high quality.

The layout is rather good. Monumental statuary is scattered throughout the exhibition, including three colossi (of the Nile god Hapy, a Ptolemaic Pharaoh and his Queen) from the Aswan granite quarries that also produced the Unfinished Obelisk. Smaller cases containing medium and small objects are located around the larger objects, allowing the visitor to see objects from all around and giving a sense of intimacy. Coming around one case I suddenly came upon the rather well-preserved rear of a granodiorite sphinx. His neatly carved tail, curling tightly around his hindquarters, was so appealing I had to restrain myself from patting it.

The excavations also found exciting new evidence for the rituals of the Osiris cult. These rituals are known from both Greco-Roman writers and inscriptions in Egyptian temples, but this is the first time archaeologists have found in situ physical remains of the riverine processions. These remains provide evidence for the physical context of activities described in the texts, and how the rituals were undertaken at Thonis-Heracleon and Canopus. Situations where we have archaeological and textual evidence of the same events are extremely valuable, because the two different types of evidence provide complementary insights into the ritual intent expressed in the texts, and the practical undertaking revealed by the archaeological record.

The discovery of the remains of the riparian Osirian processions prompted the inclusion of some exceedingly interesting artefacts in the exhibition. These explored the myths and rituals of Osiris across a wide temporal, geographical and stylistic range.  From a traditional Egyptian Osiris in sycamore wood to an entirely Greek Serapis, the artefacts demonstrate both the Egyptian and Greek Osirian traditions and their hybridisation.  The famous 13th Dynasty (c. 1747 BC) cult statue showing Isis reviving Osiris harks back to the origins of both deity and rituals in Middle Kingdom Abydos, while a second century AD Roman oil lamp showing Isis nursing Horus demonstrates the longevity of these deities and their  geographical range. This oil lamp comes from the town of Durolevum near Faversham in Kent, and is a reminder that the British Museum is only 2.6km from a Roman temple to Isis that once stood on the banks of the Walbrook river, south of Bank station in London.

It is difficult to put on an exhibition that honestly represents the process of archaeological excavation, explains to the visitor the excitement of discovering new information,  and includes sufficiently interesting objects while avoiding the impression that archaeology is all about treasure hunting. Sunken Cities largely succeeds! Far from patronising the visitor, it brings you close to some truly beautiful objects, but still manages to show the reality of underwater excavation. The artefacts from Thonis-Heracleon and Canopus are contextualised with other objects from different periods, giving a greater perspective and revealing how this new evidence fits into our understanding of the Nile delta, the Ptolemaic period, the mixing of Greek and Egyptian cultures, and the Osiris cult. If you feel the need for more information, the exhibition catalogue includes both pictures of the objects (with the museum numbers that are missing from the displays) and more background information about individual pieces and the excavation of the cities.

Overall I found the Sunken Cities exhibition a thoroughly enjoyable experience and would definitely recommend it. It is both artistic and informative. I have rarely been as stunned by the beauty of a statue as I was during this exhibition. I also thoroughly enjoyed seeing some artefacts that I have only seen before in textbooks, discovering Thonis-Heracleon and Canopus for myself and getting close to new evidence about the rituals of the Osiris cult. If you are in London before the exhibition closes on 27 November 2016 then don’t miss out.

References

Tickets can be booked online at British Museum Sunken Cities exhibition and entry is free to Members.

The exhibition catalogue Goddio, F. and Masson-Berghoff, A. 2016. Sunken Cities: Egypt’s lost worlds. Thames and Hudson, provides images of the objects, a description of the discovery of the site, and background information on both the artefacts and their context. There is also a dvd showing the excavation of some of the objects, which is free if you buy the catalogue. 

 

The failed (Egyptian) obelisk.

Apart from the many giant monolithic obelisks that survive in Egypt and elsewhere, there is one obelisk that is famous for its failure. The Unfinished Obelisk at Aswan would have been the largest ever erected at 42m, but it never left the quarry. This photo-essay looks at some of my images of the Unfinished Obelisk and briefly considers its significant for Egyptian archaeology.

unfin_obelisk_bottomup_enhanced
The unfinished obelisk from the bottom, showing cracks from its ‘failure’ and subsequent attempts to carve it up.

At some time during its extraction from the Aswan granite, a large crack developed running lengthwise up the obelisk. The obelisk was abandoned, either because the stone was felt to be fatally flawed, or because the crack was too large for the masons to carve an obelisk of sufficient size to fulfill their commission.

unfin_obelisk_crop_enhanced
The unfinished obelisk in the Aswan granite quarries.

Attempts were made to carve up the defunct obelisk to produce smaller granite items (leaving smaller, straight cracks across the obelisk at various points), but these were aborted, leaving the Unfinished Obelisk tethered to the granite.

Still bound to the living rock, the Unfinished Obelisk is a valuable source of information concerning stone quarrying and obelisk extraction. The trenches around the sides of the obelisk clearly show the use of pounders to separate the obelisk from the bedrock and these are even more visible around other partially excavated granite objects in the quarries.

granite_working_hannah
A partially excavated colossal granite statue blank, showing the grooves left by stone pounders (left) and the author sitting in the overhang where the object would have been separated from the bedrock.

It was originally thought that these trenches were cut purely by endless pounding of the bedrock, using hard stones and sand to slowly wear away the granite (Engelbach 1923), but recent research and experimental archaeology demonstrate that fire was used to weaken the granite before pounding, making it possible to extract obelisks more quickly and with fewer workmen.

The new and continuing research into stone quarrying demonstrates how valuable unfinished stone artefacts are. In its failure as an obelisk, the unfinished obelisk has found a different kind of fame amongst archaeologists and tourists, and is arguably more useful than its perfectly finished brothers and sisters. Its quarry is now a tourist attraction, with an open air museum, and it forms part of a network of important ancient stone quarries recorded around Aswan and recently studied by the Quarryscapes Project.

References

Engelbach, R. 1923. The problem of the obelisks, from a study of the unfinished obelisk at Aswan. T. F Unwin Ltd, London.

Habachi, L. 1977. The Obelisks of Egypt. New York: Charles Scribner.

Per Storemyr’s blog contains several posts of relevance to stone quarrying and obelisks and links to a recent article detailing evidence for the use of fire in hard stone quarrying.

For a general introduction to stone artefacts and stone quarrying in Egypt see also Aston B. G. Harrell, J. A and Shaw, I. 2000. Stone. In P. T Nicholson and I. Shaw (eds.) Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology. Cambridge University Press.

Does the Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill matter for archaeology outside the UK?

As if war, iconoclasm, looting, antiquities theft, collecting and poverty weren’t enough of a threat to global archaeology, over the last few weeks a new danger raised its head. Having decided that we don’t build enough houses in the UK, the current government has decided to lay the blame for this on ‘red tape’, and is proposing to reduce such bureaucratic obstacles in the imaginatively titled Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill (NPIB).

Although the text of the NPIB hasn’t been written yet, indications are that the Bill will ‘ensure that pre-commencement planning conditions are only imposed by local planning authorities where they are absolutely necessary’. This is not necessarily a bad thing. When I worked in pre-planning archaeology (writing desk-based assessments predicting the type of archaeology likely to be present on any given development site), I saw a large number of proposals and the pre-planning changes required by Local Authority Planners. Some were sane and sensible. Others . .  less so! It’s entirely reasonable to consider whether planning conditions are always ‘necessary’.

But there is a risk to archaeology from the NPIB. Unknown archaeological material, and known but less significant remains (i.e. those that are not Scheduled Monuments), are not protected by statute in the UK. Instead, they are protected under current planning policy (and its more famous forerunner PPG16). The resulting process ensures that both planners and developers know what archaeology is likely to be on a given site, through initial desk-based assessment and subsequent onsite field evaluation, if necessary. It means that any archaeological work can be programmed into the development, and costs and delays kept to a minimum. The excavation of the Elizabethan Rose Theatre, where Shakespeare first rose to prominence, demonstrates the kind of problems, delays and expense faced by government, planning authority and developer in the days before the current system was put into place (as this post shows). The system isn’t perfect, and depends very much on the thoroughness of the planning authority and the archaeological contractor, but it works very well and has given us many exciting new finds, including the King of Prittlewell, a nationally significant find that made the headlines, and was found only a few miles from where I’m writing this.

The problem with the NPIB is that archaeological work is currently almost always enforced under planning condition. I have no doubt that even under the NPIB many planning authorities will consider archaeological planning conditions ‘absolutely necessary’ and continue to use them. The risk is that archaeology will be seen as an easy target, a scapegoat for the many other things which can and do hold up development (not least of which is opposition from local people), something planners can omit to appease developers and central government in the demand for faster housing. The Telegraph is already leading the charge to lump archaeology in the those things that are unnecessary brakes on development and should be swept away. We need to ensure that that doesn’t happen, while welcoming better planning legislation. Everything depends on how this law is drafted. So we need to show government how important it is that archaeology is protected, that reasonable archaeological work doesn’t hold up development and that the current system is far better than some ad-hoc process where development is delayed by exciting archaeological finds that were unexpected and weren’t planned for.

This isn’t just a matter for UK archaeology. Many of the techniques, skills, and the actual archaeologists, that are used around the world, have been fostered by planning archaeology in the UK.  At a time when we have unprecedented looting and destruction of archaeological sites in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, how can we lobby for better protection, for more stringent laws against illegal antiquities in the UK and internationally, if the UK government is reducing protection for the archaeological sites in its own backyard? When population growth threatens archaeological sites (in Egypt for example), the type of pre-development excavation that has been employed in the UK and elsewhere could be used to record (and so extract the scientific information from) archaeological sites, while permitting an expanding population the space it needs. The reversal of archaeological protection here is a matter of wider significance beyond archaeologists, archaeological organisations and academics working with UK material.

If we do not fight for UK archaeology, if the NPIB is used to undermine archaeological protection, then it sends out the message that archaeology doesn’t really matter. This would undermine UK involvement in many of the causes that matter to archaeologists all over the world including;

  1. Efforts to improve laws against illegal antiquities;
  2. International cooperation between UK and foreign governments in the prevention of looting and repatriation of stolen antiquities;
  3. Preventing museums selling artefacts on the international market;
  4. Government protection and investment in archaeological sites across the globe.

Various UK archaeological organisations are busy lobbying to ensure their voice is heard, but there is also a a petition  (or there’s this one if you live outside the UK) to sign to demonstrate how important it is to you that future legislation continues to protect archaeology and ensure it is dealt with in a timely manner, for the benefit of everyone. If you have an interest in archaeology, no matter what type, I urge you to sign it because this is about all of our past and is a matter for everyone with an interest in archaeology, no matter what continent!